DOM BRIDGES - FOUNDER OF HAECKELS
Dom Bridges is a filmmaker, coastal living enthusiast and founder of Haeckels, a seaweed skin care and wild fragrance brand based in Margate. Through his handcrafted, natural products, Dom aims to reconnect people with Margate’s heritage of healthy coastal living. I speak to him about the story behind the brand, how he fell in love with Margate’s unique chalk coastline and his interest in the health benefits of coastal living.
After finishing art school, Dom started working as a film director in the advertising industry. He would jet around the world to make commercials for some of the biggest brands on the planet. On the face of it, his life could not be better; he would travel first class and stay in luxury hotels in some of the most beautiful locations in the world. “Travel was a massive part of the job and I loved seeing new places. I would travel first class, stay in five star hotels, in amazing places, but with assholes I did not like to make commercials for brands I had no respect for”, he says bluntly. Ironically Dom was millions of miles from nature in the bustling metropolis of central Shanghai shooting a commercial for Lynx when his love affair with seaweed first started. He had recently given up smoking; however during the long, draining days on set, his will power was tested to the limit. While the rest of the crew would regularly turn to nicotine for a moment of respite from the intense shooting schedule, Dom would find solace in the seaweed snacks that were dotted around the studio as the smoke wafted into the room.
When Dom returned home from China he felt disillusioned with advertising; he perceived it to be a vacuous industry and was longing for a life change. If his jet set working life had taught him one thing, it was that he is most content when he is by the ocean. “I am at my happiest when I can see this vast expanse of view to look at”, he says. In a somewhat apocalyptic way of thinking about it, he also feels a sense of security being close to the sea. “My dad always said never walk into a place unless you know how to get out. With the coast you have this big back door – it produces this sense of calm that you are right on the edge and there is a way out rather than being land locked in a Metropolis”, he says. So Dom started looking for a family home on the English coast; not only did he think it would be a healthier lifestyle for him and his wife Joe, he also thought it would be an idyllic place to bring up their young daughter, who has inherited her father’s love of coastal living. “It is undeniable that the ocean is going to be a major influence on her. Hopefully it will spark a sense of travel and the sense that there is somewhere out there to be explored”, he says.
Dom first discovered Margate on his honeymoon; he had married Joe at a lighthouse in Dungeness and on the way back to London stopped off in Margate, having been drawn to the town by its faded grandeur. In the Victorian era, Margate was one of the UK’s most popular holiday destinations; Londoners would visit in their droves to enjoy Margate’s healthy sea air. However, the dawn of cheap air travel washed away much of Margate’s tourist industry and the town was left to rot. When Dom first laid eyes on Margate he saw past the run down dirty streets, the boarded up shops and ramshackle roller coasters, only rustic seaside charm. He was also inspired by local businesses that were up against it but self earning and self sustaining. “It just reminded me of Havana, Cuba. It was kind of falling into the sea but there was this sense of entrepreneurship”, he says. In many ways Margate also reminded Dom of Williamsburg, a gritty, multicultural city in the United States he called home for a number of years. “They are similar in the sense that you are close to the sea but there is also a backdrop of corporate mayhem. In Williamsburg you have Manhattan and here you have London. Margate was created to serve the city in a way. People would come out here for medicinal purposes and hedonism”, he explains. It did not take long for Dom and Joe to find a quaint house at the top of a hill in Cliftonville, the less salubrious part of town.
Dom was also quick to fall in love with Margate’s unique natural environment. “In the shadow of my wife making another person I didn’t know what do with myself. So I woke up and cleaned the beach, all the time thinking, by the time my wife has given birth this place is going to be immaculate”, he says. He still gets a “real buzz” from cleaning the beach with the local community. “One day my Polish neighbour helped me while on another a kid from the local café turned up to help”, he exclaims.
In the evenings Dom would enjoy unwinding with a pint at the local pub on the sea front. He began to find his daily moment of tranquility being spoilt by local residents moaning about the smell of the seaweed that backed up in the harbour. Dom didn’t take kindly to such whisperings; he had a special affection for seaweed, after all, it had been instrumental to him successfully kicking his smoking habit in Shanghai. He was determined to change people’s opinion of it so set about exploring beneficial uses of seaweed and discovered it has a number of vitamins and minerals that are essential to maintaining healthy and youthful skin. He was granted a license to legally harvest the seaweed and, before long, was experimenting with it in his kitchen. After perfecting a recipe for seaweed soap, he decided to make a bar for his family and friends at Christmas. “I decided that not only should it be a beneficial product but it should also look like it has not been made by a mad man in his kitchen, so I made it look really presentable”, he says. He noticed that people were not only using it to wash, they were also displaying it as a decoration on their mantle pieces. “I had made an object that no one was really interested in into something they really coveted”, he exclaims. The success of the soap gave him the confidence to start making other products. “Joe was pregnant and not very interested in me so I grew a beard, which inspired me to make beard oil.” The beard oil was voted best beard oil in the UK by Esquire magazine; Dom was convinced that there was a demand so he set his mind to designing more products. It was and still is a labour of love; “I absolutely love it and that is from this amazing sense of release from the creative restriction I was under”, he says.
The inspiration for the brand name came from Ernst Haeckel, the German botanist and artist. When Dom was at Art College he was fascinated by Haeckel’s detailed multi-colour illustrations of animals and sea creatures. “He did it in a ludicrously accurate way and it always stuck in my mind. In my head if I ever waded from the path I had to get back to his drawings and always apply that much detail to my designs”, he says. When he came across some Victorian cabinets from the National History Museum for sale he snapped them up. It seemed fitting because not only do they display the products in an interesting way you “regularly find people from the museum carrying out tests on the seaweed on the beach.” The sea front shop with its magnificent cabinets is a sight to behold and would not have looked out of place during the Victorian era, Margate’s heyday.
Above all else, Dom’s main aim is to promote the natural beauty of Margate’s coast and its heritage of healthy coastal living through his products. “As we started to invest in Easyjet we all lost that kind of connection with the English coast”, he says. So everything Dom designs is a direct representation of Margate’s natural environment. The Chalk Room Diffuser uses a small rectangular block of porous chalk found in the cliffs and reefs along the local Margate coast line and Haeckels’ fragrances have no name, only GPS coordinates which represent where the ingredients come from in Margate. The GPS code invites the person who has fallen in love with the aromatic beauty of the scent to visit that place its ingredients were collected. The scents are about representing the whole neighbourhood so Dom has also started to look in land to the Dane Valley woods for inspiration. While Dom acknowledges that there are more picturesque places in Britain, he thinks, “on a natural level, Margate is phenomenal.”
When Haeckels was first stocked in Selfridges in London people from Margate would call Dom to report that the display was a mess so they had tidied it up; clearly there is a huge sense of ownership and pride that the products come from the town. This stems from the fact that Dom goes to great lengths to keep the brand as local as possible. Indeed the Haeckels story is extraordinary in terms of carbon footprint of production. “The bottles are the furthest thing, everything else is developed within walking distance of the shop,” Dom tells me. Furthermore, the work force is all local, something Dom is very proud of. He plans to continue employing Margate natives as Haeckels continues to spread its wings. Dom and family try to live as sustainably as possible in their everyday life. Since he first arrived, the infrastructure for recycling has dramatically improved and local residents can also grow vegetables at The Garden Gate Project community garden. “It was pretty much Harlem in the 19th century when we first got here. Recycling was not high on the priority list; how do we manage the fact we have 12 people in a one bedroom flat was the main worry”, Dom says.
Dom says it is “crazy” how well it has gone; Haeckels products are currently stocked in Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, and Fortnum and Mason. However he is not one to rest on his laurels and is always looking to innovate. Indeed he has a close eye on foreign expansion and hopes to open a shop in Tokyo in the not too distant future. “The Tokyo thing makes me giggle because the whole heritage in terms of the product comes from Asia”, he tells me. Dom has a vision for Haeckels to move into different territories where he can use natural products and drum up interest in a place that people have forgotten about, like he has done with Haeckels in Margate. Another ambition is to create a seaweed based drink and arrange mini TED style lectures on the health benefits of coastal living from scientists and philosophers at the store.
There is a tidal pool near the place Dom harvests the seaweed; it is a grade two-listed Victorian tidal pool, which retains water when the tide is withdrawn. Every morning Dom would see the same 70-year-old man swimming back and forth. “He would always say if I have a heart attack you need to jump in and save me”, Dom recalls. From swimming in this dilapidated pool every day the old man’s skin was unbelievable. One morning there was a car in the pool, which was a disaster because the BBC was turning up the next day to film the old man and swimmers. So Dom and the other costal volunteers spent all night trying to remove it. “What I love about this place is that, no one is coming to save you, no one is coming to help you, you just get on with it, and get your hands dirty”, Dom says. He thinks being based in Margate means, as a brand, they need to work harder. “In Margate you can’t be a carbon copy of a Byron burger because no one is getting on a train to visit that; Haeckels at a push would work in outer Mongolia in terms of a source of good seaweed”, he tells me.
Visit the Haeckels website and you are met with a mesmerising film of Alex Verier, a local lad and Dom’s right hand man, drawing the blinds of the Haeckels shop. The film opens with the line “salt water will heal your wounds”, displayed clear and bold on the screen. Dom has found contentment and happiness in Margate’s beautiful chalk coastline and its treasure trove of seaweed. No longer shackled by the demands of people and companies he has no respect for, he is thriving and feels nothing but excitement and optimism about what the future holds for Haeckels and his family.
Headline image credited to Alun Callender (www.aluncallender.com) All other photos credited to Dom Bridges or www.haeckels.co.uk